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Meet the couple behind one of New Zealand’s best plum orchards

Meet the couple behind one of New Zealand’s best plum orchards

Aside from the health benefits and that delicious sweet-tart flavour, there is plenty more to love about plums.

What was once a bare property has been transformed into one of New Zealand’s biggest and best plum orchards by Mike and Julie Russell. The couple bought the land more than 20 years ago and grew peaches, apples, pears and asparagus before shifting their focus to ‘Black Doris’ plums to supply Wattie’s 15 years ago.

“As other red-fleshed plum varieties became available we decided to specialise as plum growers,” says Julie.

A good proportion of their produce is still sold to Wattie’s and their business, MJ & JJ Russell, was awarded the company’s Grower of the Year for plums in 2011 and 2013. Russells’ Plums are also sold at supermarkets around the country from January to March.

Art is another focus for the couple and their property moonlights as an extensive sculpture garden. It is opened to the public every two years for the Wildflower Sculpture Exhibition, which raises funds for the Cranford Hospice in Hastings and provides a platform and income for the local art community. Julie spends a lot of time maintaining the garden for this and organising the event.

The pair met while studying horticulture at Massey University 35 years ago, and even after raising a family (they have three daughters and three grandchildren) and working together for so many years, they still enjoy their partnership and make all the decisions about the orchard together.

There are 8000 plum trees on their 16-hectare property, with varieties including ‘Black Doris’, ‘Fortune’, ‘Royal Star’, ‘Rose Zee’ and ‘Primetime’.

“Our goal is to grow large, ready-to-eat plums, so we prune hard in the winter to allow maximum light into the tree and thin excess fruit in early spring to optimise the growth potential of each variety,” says Julie.

The Russells have an orchard manager and part-time employee, plus a number of seasonal workers. However, they are still very involved in the business, and living on-site means Mike can continue to be hands-on. They also grow peas, beans, sweetcorn and maize, and in the winter they ‘finish’ lambs (the final stage before the animals go to market).

As to be expected, the couple are strong plum advocates and consider red-fleshed plums to be a superfood – the fruit has excellent levels of anthocyanins, which are said to potentially lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Recently they had their ‘Primetime’ plums tested by Carolyn Lister of Plant & Food Research, and found that the levels of antioxidants were higher than in many other fruit. Aside from the health benefits and that delicious sweet-tart flavour, Julie says there is plenty more to love about plums.

“They are easy to eat. Our plums have very little spray applied. And the new varieties offer a lot more opportunities to experience this wonderful fruit.

“We just love growing things and enjoy the seasonality of life on the orchard,” she says.

Julie’s shopping and preserving tips

  • When choosing plums at the shop, look for firm fruit with a good background colour. Plums last well outside the fridge and will keep ripening in the fruit bowl. Store in dry, cool conditions.
  • To free-flow freeze plums, remove stones and lay on trays, then place in freezer. Plums can be thawed and used for juicing, baking and eating.
  • Some of our favourite ways to use plums are in cakes and sauces. We also stew plums with a little sugar and water and serve with cereal.
  • Bottle plums by boiling fruit with water and sugar. Pour mixture into sterilised bottles and seal.

russellsplums.nz

Photography by: Florence Charvin

Fiona Ralph

Fiona Ralph Fiona is the features editor of NADIA magazine.

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